Interview: Robert Jones

Summer 2018

By Courtney Leatherman

You grew up boating and fishing with your dad, catching striped bass and flounder in New York Harbor. What’s a lifelong fisherman doing promoting aquaculture?

I started out in wild fisheries management to help with overfishing. But I soon realized there’s a limit to the amount of seafood we can get from the ocean. There are just not enough fish out there. And people still need to eat, and people still need jobs. Aquaculture is the only way to significantly increase the seafood supply. And growing fish in the water is actually one of the most resource-efficient methods of food production, second only to insect production. I don’t see us eating a lot of insects anytime soon.

Probably right. You’ve likened aquaculture to agriculture, but what do you mean, specifically?

Aquaculture should not be a scary word. You can farm aquatic organisms—in a tank on land, in a coastal pond and in cages in the sea. Just like agriculture is an extremely diverse sector, aquaculture is, too. Probably even more so because of the sheer diversity of aquatic species. Some 500 aquatic species of finfish, shellfish and aquatic plants are grown across the globe right now.

I’ve avoided buying farm-raised shrimp and Atlantic salmon for years because I’d heard such farms frequently wreck habitat, create pollution and spread disease. Are you telling me it’s OK?

I was an anti-aquaculture person for all the reasons you’ve heard about. But modern techniques have gotten better, and we’ve developed ways to mitigate these impacts—like limiting the size of farms, reducing the antibiotics used to treat disease, and siting [farms] in deep water with a fast current to minimize the impact of pollution on the marine environment. On the whole, the industry has improved.

So can I buy farm-raised salmon?

I do. You have to compare it against every other terrestrial animal: Switching from beef to salmon or pork to salmon is a good environmental choice providing that the producer has done its job reducing the environmental impact. I think, for example, that the Norwegian industry is doing better than others. The Scottish also do a pretty good job. So, yes, I do believe that aquaculture, when done sustainably, is a smart environmental choice.

And yet, you love fishing. You’ve been using a rod and reel since you were a little kid.

Yeah. I like the challenge of it. It’s like a game trying to figure out where to fish based on how the ecosystem is functioning. And I like the connection with nature and with food. Actually harvesting the food that you eat gives you a totally different appreciation of those animals. You learn that those marine resources are precious. No fish was wasted in our household.

So you started out as a commercial fishing observer, to help protect that resource from overfishing. What was it like being the government guy out at sea with fishermen for weeks on end?

I had a love-hate relationship with that job—no other job has been as exciting or as physically and mentally challenging. I learned more in that year about fisheries and ecosystems and marine life than I did at any other time.

It was on one of these trips where I had this aha moment with aquaculture. I was on a 10-day trip on a Portuguese cruise vessel out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was the perfect storm: We got hit by a nor’easter, had to go back to port. When we went back out, it was bad fishing, and we ripped a net, which took a day to fix. When the trip ended, one of the fishermen said he made $250 for the trip, which wasn’t enough to pay his rent. I thought, what’s wrong with this picture? We’re not meeting the environmental objective—fish are still being overfished. And the fishermen aren’t making enough money to live.

But your aspirations for aquaculture go beyond limiting environmental impacts and creating jobs. You’ve got seven projects going to figure out if it can be used as a tool to restore degraded environments—like the Chesapeake Bay. How does that work?

Look at oyster aquaculture: An oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day. It improves water quality and clarity—as does seaweed. Oyster farms provide habitat for other organisms. All sorts of critters glom onto them and live around them. What if aquaculture could complement and accelerate ecosystem restoration work and provide more jobs and sustainable food?

Sounds like a good deal. What’s been a challenge moving forward?

Part of it is that aquaculture is such a young field, and it has grown rapidly. The learning curve that occurred over thousands of years for traditional agriculture occurred over a few decades for aquaculture.

You sound hopeful overall though. You even wrote a paper called, “Can Farming the Ocean Help Save the Planet?” That’s pretty provocative. Are you serious?

Yes. I think aquaculture is one of the most significant opportunities for food production of our generation. There are so many acres of open ocean. It’s a real frontier; it might be the last frontier of food production. And it can be a major contributor to our goals—both humanitarian and environmental.

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